Tornados... powerful, fearful, unpredictable... and a source of controversy over the years as people tried to figure out what they are (or if they even existed). Lee Sandlin tells the story of those who first tried to solve the puzzle in his book Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers. I didn't enjoy this book as much as I thought I would, but it could well be due to incorrect expectations rather than the fault of the content or quality of the writing. I'll be the first to admit that in this case, your mileage may vary...
Contents: Introduction - Ghost Riders; Prologue - The Pillar in the Storm Part I - The Thunder House: The Electricians; A Little More of the Marvelous; To Treat Master Franklin Part II - The Storm War: The So-Called Tornado; The Philosophy of Storms; Under the Map; One Dead, One Exhausted; One Converted; The Finger of God Part III - Red Wind and Tornado Green: The Great American Desert; The Night Watch; Premonitory Symptoms; Violent Local Storms; How to Escape; The Desert Is No More; The Book of Failure; An Awful Commotion Part IV - The Mystery of Severe Storms: Canvas and Cellophane; The Unfriendly Sky; Visible Effects of the Invisible; Epilogue - The Wild Hunt A Note on Sources; Acknowledgments
When I think of tornado chasers, I conjure up the images of people outfitted with computers and vehicles that look like apocalyptic Road Warrior battle carriages. But Sandlin goes back further in time... to the mid-1700's, when the scientists of the day were trying to figure out what these destructive storms might be. With primitive technology and unreliable eyewitness reports, theories abounded as to whether tornados were just strong storms or something that transcended clouds and wind. The "scientific process" was more of a political one, and the prevailing theories were driven more by personalities and government connections instead of by experimentation and study. Despite large amounts of evidence to the contrary, scientists and institutions continued to downplay or even deny the existence of actual tornados, leading to massive loss of life and property. The destructive nature of tornados also made study difficult, as very few measuring tools could survive actual contact with the funnel clouds. Even as late as 20 to 30 years ago, there was still a lack of hard data to assist with forecasting and early warning.
From a historical perspective, Storm Kings was interesting for seeing how weather science was based less on science and more on bureaucracy. Weather study and forecasting was largely a military concern, and even when it became more mainstream, there was a distinct lack of priority and importance placed on science and learning. It was more reporting the current weather and trying to be general enough to look like you knew what you were doing. Sandlin did a good job in exposing that side of the story.
Where I had problems is that the book spent (in my opinion) far too much time in the politics and personalities that dominated the field in the 1700's and 1800's. At times, I didn't even feel like I was reading a book on tornados as much as a book on warring factions and personalities who studied weather. Once the timeline advanced into the mid-1900's, the stories sped up and were more truncated, with things pretty much ending with Fujita (the person who established the F-scale of tornado sizing) in the late 1970's. Past that point, very little was covered, and I felt that much of what I was hoping for (stories of today's tornado chasing) was largely ignored.
By "incorrect expectations", I admit that I saw "tornado chasers" and expected less "history of weather" and more "adrenline junkies chasing F5 tornados in caravans of vehicles". That was my fault. For those who are very much into meteorology and the history of tornados, Sandlin's book covers that well. I still think things got too bogged down in personalities and vendettas, but the right target audience might well like that more than I did. For me, this was interesting but average. Had I gone in with the proper expectations, I might have given the book a pass. But for what it is and what it covers, I can see how others would think it was well done.
Sandlin's account truly does tell an unexpected tale about the history of tornado science in America. Starting with Ben Franklin, the only recognizable name in the history to the casual reader and one of the few who approached the topic with both an open mind and a scientific bent, the story spins downhill through bad science, lucky guesswork, bitter personal feuds, loud public pronouncements, and even worse unlucky and unfortunate guesswork. After Franklin's promising … more
Thomas Duff, aka "Duffbert", is a long-time member of the Lotus community. He's primarily focused on the development side of the Notes/Domino environment, currently working for a large insurance … more
“Thrilling. . . . Sandlin's triumph is turning a historical survey of generations of American tornado scholars, victims and obsessives into something that reads like a brisk novel. It offers an epic scope reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez; vivid, eccentric characters that could inhabit a Jonathan Lethem book; rivalries as intense as anything in Dostoevsky or Archie comics; and wonders as grand as any described by L. Frank Baum (but with better tornado descriptions). . . . But Sandlin's attempt to turn history into entertainment is not alchemy: As he documents magnificently, science and showbiz were intimately intertwined in America's early years. Ben Franklin's fascination with electricity (his famed kite and key experiment unintentionally establishing him as a storm expert) came from watching "Electricians," traveling magicians who did sideshow tricks with static electricity. The lyceum circuit of the early 19th century saw semi-professional scientists give lectures and debates before an everyman audience, the validity of theories determined by audience applause. Even the scientific papers published in the 19th century, at least the ones that proved useful to Sandlin, so valued dramatic, anecdotal accounts that a seaman who witnessed a storm was as welcome as his professor to submit his paper, making academic journals as action packed as an episode of "Deadliest Catch" or "Man vs. Wild." With source material this narrative-friendly, it's no surprise ...